It takes a long time to move from your light bulb moment to the red carpet. Even if things go perfectly according to plan, you are likely counting years, not months. A myriad of things can go wrong along the way and there are always moments of lag in between big events.
If you want to ensure that you will have a project that sells, you’ll need to be working on a couple of ideas at once. In Hollywood, we call this a slate.
A film slate is not all that different from a venture capitalist’s or stock trader’s portfolio. When dealing with risk, one has to assume that not every idea will pan out. In order to hedge our risk, we spread our capital across a number of bets and hope that the winners pay for the losers. In finance, you are investing money, while in screenwriting and producing, you are more likely investing your time.
So how does one go about building and managing a slate?
The first rule of slate building is not to build a slate simply to have one. You are better off putting all of your time behind one good idea than spreading yourself thin managing ten mediocre ideas. As I’ve written in the past, if you don’t believe that your idea is undeniable, it’s unlikely that you will find success.
It takes a lot of effort to build a slate. The only way to do so is to be committed to your craft over a long period of time. Once you find your first great idea, focus on it until you feel that it is in a good place, and then move on to look for more. Always keep your antenna up. Most of my best ideas come when I am not looking for them. When you find a good idea, write it down. Most producers keep a slate board above their desk. I am staring at mine right now.
In my case, my slate board has two categories, acquired ideas and non-acquired ideas. My acquired ideas are those that I’ve either optioned or developed to the point where there is actual, intellectual property behind them. My non-acquired ideas are more fledgling, passing thoughts that I’d like to hold on to for later or items I would like to acquire when I have more resources. I adjust my slate board once a month and move ideas on or off the list based on my current thinking. I also rank my ideas from what I believe to be the most promising down to the least promising and adjust them as development unfolds.
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Once you have your list of ideas, make sure to check in on them daily. Whenever I have a moment of downtime, I always go down my slate board and ask myself a simple question…
What can I do to move this item one step closer to the finish line?
Oftentimes the answer for a given idea is going to be nothing. You may have a book you’ve optioned that is out with a writer. If the writer needs four weeks to complete their assignment, there won’t be much that you can do to move that item along. The same goes if you’ve had a big pitch meeting and need to wait for a response. If that’s the case, you move to the next idea until you find one that is actionable. If I can move at least one item forward, I consider myself to have had a successful day.
Having a good slate stops you from obsessing over any single project. As your career progresses, the more ideas you have under your control the better prepared you will be when lightning strikes. The more success you have, the more marketable all of your ideas will become. If you’ve effectively built a slate, you’ll be well equipped to hit the ground running when a talent agent or studio asks what else you’ve got.
If an idea doesn’t pan out, don’t forget about it. Simply move it to the bottom of your slate rankings. You never know when things will change.
If you are lucky, you’ll get all of the items on your slate to work. Chances are many of your ideas will not be successful. By building and managing a slate, you’ll ensure that your eggs are never all in one basket and that there will never be a time that there isn’t a project to progress.
Having a strong slate will allow you to keep your head up and push forward even when your best idea gets stuck in the mud. After all, you can always move something else into that top slot!
David Kaufmann is an independent film and television producer living in Los Angeles. He began his career as an NBC Page at Saturday Night Live. He spent over nine years handling film and television licensing and development at Major League Baseball where he helped create critically acclaimed films like Moneyball and 42. He has an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Richmond and holds an MBA from NYU Stern with a focus on the media business and creative producing. He is an active member of the Producers Guild of America. For more on David, please visit his IMDB or LinkedIn.